GRR

Axon's Automotive Anorak: Lamenting Lancia at 111

03rd November 2017

If you’re a fan of Goodwood and its world-class motoring events (which, as you’re reading this, I suspect you are), then you should owe a huge debt of gratitude to Lancia, just as you should if you are a real car enthusiast, full stop!

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Lancia?! Why’s that, you may well ask? Well, without Lancia, from a Goodwood perspective arguably the Festival of Speed may never have been created, way back in 1993, leading on to the equally popular and admired Goodwood Revival, and more recently, the Members’ Meeting.

And from a general automotive enthusiasts’ viewpoint, without Lancia we probably would have had to wait considerably longer for an endless stream of important innovative engineering that we now take for granted in our cars, such as electric car lighting, a monocoque platform, a five-speed gearbox, V6 (and V4) engines, independent suspension, and so on. We wouldn’t have been so well entertained either, trackside, or in the forests, deserts and other rally stages the world over, had it not been for Lancia.

At 111 years old this year, Lancia – beyond question one of the greatest and most significant car marques of all time – is tragically about to disappear into oblivion, with the last examples of this once mightily-proud marque now being sold-off in the few remaining Continental markets where Lancia still exists.

The company’s websites in France, Germany, Switzerland, etc, have now been switched off, leaving the domestic Italian market the only place left in the world where you can still buy a brand-new Lancia, albeit with just one remaining model, the rather inadequate Ypsilon city car. Once the current Ypsilon ceases production in a couple of years’ time, it will not be replaced, consigning yet another great car brand to the motoring history books, along with Rover, Saab, Oldsmobile, Tatra, Pontiac, and other recent entrants. Tragic.

So, for starters, what’s the connection between Lancia and Goodwood? In the 1930s, the present 11th Duke of Richmond’s Grandfather, Freddie Richmond, the 9th Duke, became the Lancia distributor for England and the British Empire (which interestingly excluded Scotland from the agreement!).

To purchase a Lancia in the 1930s, you needed to be a true motoring enthusiast who not only appreciated the finest in automotive engineering, but also had very deep pockets, as a new Lancia was an expensive motor car. The 9th Duke bodied a few Lancia chassis himself (mainly Augustas) with his owned self-designed March-bodied coachbuilt models.

Freddie March also founded the first British enthusiasts club for Lancia owners, inviting a number of these (plus some wealthy chums with other ‘proper’ motor cars) to attend a hillclimb on his drive past Goodwood House in 1936, which he subsequently won in his own March-bodied Lancia Augusta. This 1936 event was the inspiration behind the first Festival of Speed Hillclimb at Goodwood in 1993, which has now grown into the world’s premier celebration of motorsport and car culture.

Lancia’s deserved reputation for making some of the finest cars in the world was borne out of its exceptional quality and innovative excellence. In 1913, for example, Lancia introduced first European car to be equipped with standard electrics for its lighting, etc., the Theta, with another major innovation, the world’s first monocoque, being seen on its Lambda in 1922. Lancia introduced the world’s first V4 engine in its new Augusta at the 1932 Paris Salon, and followed this up with arguably one of the most competent and important cars of the 1930s, the pillar-less Aprilia.

Post-war, Lancia introduced the first five-speed manual gearbox in its third-series Ardea, with the world’s first V6 motor announced just three years later in the stunning 1950 Aurelia. In its beautiful Pininfarina-bodied coupe form, the Aurelia also invented the GT Gran Turismo, with Lancia claiming the first independent suspension too, for both its Aurelia and Flaminia.

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As well as producing a string of outstanding models post-war (Aurelia, Flaminia, Flavia, Fulvia, Stratos, Delta, etc.), Lancia excelled in competitive motor sport, especially rallying, where statistically it remains the most successful marque of all-time, despite officially withdrawing from rallying in 1992!

Lancia dominating rallying for 20 years, winning the World Rally Championship (WRC) in 1972 (Fulvia V4), 1974-76 (Stratos), 1983 (037), and 1987-92 (Delta Integrale). Quite a feat, that has yet to be bettered, and quite an exceptional car marque overall.

So why is it, to the ill-informed and unimaginative, that Lancia today has such a lousy reputation? Is it purely down to that dreaded four-letter word; rust?! Sure, Lancias rusted in the 1970s, as did nearly all others cars, be they Italian, French, British, German, Japanese, and so on. Show me a 1977 Rover SD1, Renault 30, Audi 100 or Toyota Crown that hasn’t suffered corrosion!

The key difference between Lancia and the other contemporary car brands at the time was that the British Lancia importer at the time handled the whole Beta rust ‘scandal’ so badly, not helped by Esther Rantzen’s 1980 crusade on BBC1’s That’s Life.

Overnight, Lancia’s fine reputation (remember that in the late 1970s Lancia outsold key rivals in the UK such as BMW, Audi and Saab) was destroyed, with residual values plummeting and fields full of unsold (and unsaleable) cars. The marque soldered on in the UK unsuccessfully until it finally called it a day in 1994, by which time its model range was fully galvanized and more rust-resistant ironically than its British and German rivals. The British car buying public weren’t convinced though.

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I know this from first-hand experience, having owned five Lancias over the years (a Fulvia Sport Zagato, a Gamma coupe, two Beta Monte Carlos, and a Delta HF Turbo), with ‘so called’ fellow car fans, pointing and making cretinous comments such as “oh, hasn’t it rusted away yet?”, and so on. Such wags…

Lancia briefly returned to these shores, in disguised form, in 2011, wearing Chrysler badges (what were they thinking!) with the Ypsilon and third-generation Delta. They found very few takers, as did the dreadful American Chrysler models, insultingly re-branded as Lancias on the Continent, such as the new Thema (a Chrysler 300C), Flavia (Chrysler Sebring), and worse of all, the Lancia Grand Voyager MPV!  

A truly sorry end to one of the greatest car makers of all time, and one that we should all thank for its major contributions to our motoring pleasure, be it motor racing, innovations that benefit us all, or the entertainment that the Goodwood motorsport events provide every year. Ciao Lancia!

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